June 17th, 2018 (also Father’s Day this year) marked the 40th anniversary of the most memorable baseball game I’ve ever seen in person – the Ron Guidry 18-strikeout game, a 4-0 victory for the eventual world champion New York Yankees over the California Angels. But this game has actually been on my mind a lot recently leading up to this date.
It started with picking up Guidry’s book, Gator, published earlier this year, and reading the whole thing (only 200 pages plus pictures) on the drive upstate for my nephew’s college graduation. So many good stories about his time in pinstripes, and you almost forget just how good he was for so long. I also unfortunately attended the wake of an old family friend recently, and it was his oldest son, George, and my buddy Matt who talked my Mom into letting me go to the Bronx to see the best pitcher in the league at the time, 10-0 with an ERA of around 1.50.
Also, the game itself was replayed on the YES Network’s Yankees Classics the other night, and brought back so many memories! The old-time graphics and stats. The colorful yet formal AL umpire outfits. The way Guidry worked so fast and with perfect mechanics. How Thurman Munson (my second favorite baseball player ever, after Don Mattingly) never really framed a pitch to steal a strike – but with Guidry he didn’t have to. The fact that Fred “Chicken” Stanley and Brian Doyle were the double play combination that day, and Gary Thomasson played center, in only his second game as a Yankee, and delivered a couple big hits. How Reggie Jackson nearly screwed himself into the ground with every swing and miss, of which there were plenty in his career. The birth of Ron’s “Louisiana Lightning” nickname, thanks to a sign hung by a fan, a fact which I didn’t remember. And how the WPIX broadcast used four announcers: Frank Messer, Bill White, and the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, for three innings each, plus Fran Healy (backup catcher on the previous year’s championship team) as analyst for the whole game.
My two favorite memories from being in the stands that night, sitting down the right field line, start with the fact it’s known as the first game where fans clapped for the pitcher to get a strikeout when there were two strikes on the hitter. Plenty of opportunities that night, too! Now it’s done nearly any time any pitcher has a 2-strike count. Famously, Guidry told catcher Munson before the 8th inning he just wanted to get the Angels out and if they were close to the major league record of 19 in the 9th that then they would go for it. Well, he “only” got to 18, and every Angel hitter that even fouled a ball off was booed! The other hilarious memory was the four fairly boozy Hispanic men sitting next to us who were chattering the whole game. One of them slept through the middle innings, then woke up in the 7th when the crowd was sensing history and let out a rousing “Come on, Mickey!” Another of the quartet stood up on the Yankee Stadium folding chairs in the 9th, only to promptly fall through as the seat closed! As an 11-year old, I naturally found this whole scene pretty damn hilarious. But man, what a game to be at. Greatest pitching performance I’ve ever seen live. Of course, we all know Guidry finished 1978 with a 25-3 record and 1.74 ERA, easily winning the Cy Young award and almost taking the MVP, finishing second to the hated Jim Rice.
It’s not just the 18 K game – I’ve been on a Yankees kick the whole last month. Not only the good performance the current team has been putting up, but I’ve been finally reading some of the many books collecting dust on the shelves. First it was the 1970s and The Bronx is Burning, a highly recommended, interesting look at the 1977 Yanks (my favorite team ever) and the politics, social unrest, and other craziness going on in New York City that summer and fall, from the blackout to the Son of Sam. Next up in the lineup was The Pine Tar Game, an in-depth history of the infamous game when Royals third baseman George Brett went positively mental when he was called out for too much pine tar on his bat after blasting a homer off Goose Gossage in the 9th inning. Lots of background on both teams, plus interviews and anecdotes on the game itself and the aftermath. Then I’m starting Birth of a Dynasty, a behind-the-scenes history of the 1996 Yanks, the first team in franchise history to win a World Series since 1978. Lots of great reading, and I can’t seem to put these books down!
The perfect finishing touch? Typing this for my first post in 5 years with the Yankees’ Old-Timer’s game on the TV, always one of the coolest days of the season each year. And yes, Guidry is there, making a quick appearance on the mound in the first to toss some sliders.